The importance of the role parents play in supporting their children’s education is not debatable. If parents help their children at home, work with schools to support learning, and advocate for their child’s needs, the chances are that children will do better. But whose responsibility is it to make this partnership work?
Naturally, the first thought is that it’s the parent’s responsibility, but, in reality, this is only one part of the answer. Schools also have a critical role to play.
Families In Schools has developed a simple framework to understand the key components of an authentic family-school partnership. FIS defines Parent Engagement as actions taken by schools to make it as easy as possible for parents to get involved; and Parent Involvement as actions taken by parents to support their child’s education at home and at school.
For example, when the teacher personally invites you to the back-to-school night, warmly welcomes you on the night of the event, and explains the school’s grading policy, this is parent engagement. When you attend the back to school night and ask how you can help your child’s academic progress, this is parent involvement. Each piece of this equation is critical for student success.
The basic components of parent engagement are missing in many schools. This is particularly true in immigrant and low-income communities.
This framework helps both sides recognize they each have a key role to play. Related to the scenario above, schools are not responsible for picking up the parents at home, but they are responsible for outreaching to parents effectively, welcoming them, and making their experience worthwhile at the event. Believe it or not, the basic components of parent engagement are missing in many schools. This is particularly true in immigrant and low-income communities, where the obstacles parents face such as not having time and flexibility with work, having insufficient financial resources, and lack of know-how about the school system are seen as the excuses to blame parents rather than a reason to engage them more.
But the responsibility of schools to engage parents is not simply born out of pity or kindness. Rather, the responsibility is derived from a much more essential source—from the fact that schools are publicly funded democratic institutions. As such, their role is to address the needs of students and parents regardless of their income level, background, education level, or race in a way that is democratic and fair.
Furthermore, schools have the responsibility to use all necessary strategies to meet their mission of providing a quality education to all families, and more than 20 years of research shows that when schools invest substantially in engaging parents, they see student achievement improve faster. Schools carry the burden to be proactive in making this partnership work. That is what our tax dollars are paying for, what we expect from democratic institutions, and what needs to be done to increase student achievement.
Schools must increase their investment in parent engagement. This includes adequate training for their staff, revamping school policies, and providing quality learning opportunities that help parents strengthen their knowledge of the school system.
For many middle and upper income families, this is not a critical issue since they can use financial resources and know-how to maneuver the system and find a better learning environment for their children (private schools, moving to a better district). Millions of low-income families, on the other hand, are trapped in communities with low-performing schools where parents are seen as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. All parents love their children and based on that love, they would do anything to give their children a better life. Schools must believe this mantra and truly take ownership in fulfilling their role as part of an effective family-school partnership.